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REVIEW: The Best of Michael Moorcock, edited by John Davey, and Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

REVIEW SUMMARY: Contains a couple of must-read stories, and then just other stuff.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A collection of short stories from all different points through Moorcock’s career, assembled to give the reader all his best.

PROS: Stories like “Behold the Man” and “A Winter Admiral” are beautiful and jaw-dropping.
CONS: So many other stories in the book are just a slog to get through.
BOTTOM LINE: Feels less like a best-of collection and more like a miscellany, and an unenjoyable one at that.

The normal SF Signal structure for reviews of collections of short stories is that each short story is given its own star-rating and mini-review, and this was the structure I inteded to use when I got The Best of Michael Moorcock and dove into it. And now, here I am sitting down to write the review, and it’s going to have a rather different shape. You’ll see why in a second. And hopefully, no one will feed me to the sharks.

When I got my copy of The Best of Michael Moorcock, which is published by Tachyon and is edited by John Davey, as well as Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, I was more than a little excited. Of course I’ve known the name Michael Moorcock, since he’s been a major influence on a great number of writers who were, in turn, a big influence on me. But, and I want to stress this, I had never read Michael Moorcock myself. I knew a little bit about him, I knew the premise of a single story of his (“Behold the Man”) and loved the mere idea of it. I was really excited.

As I got into the book, my excitement turned into amazement at his power as a writer. I flipped first to the story “Behold the Man,” and it was better than I had hoped. It was one of the best short stories I had ever read. It was one of those stories where I came away going “I will never write so well. And I don’t care. Because I got to read SOMEONE ELSE writing that well.”

And there were other stories in the book that got to me the same way. Two, in particular. One was “A Winter Admiral,” which is little more than a woman in a house, dealing with a butterfly…but is beautiful, and quiet, and literary, and powerful.

“A Dead Singer” was another one. I don’t pretend to fully understand it, but I loved it all the same.

And then…most of the rest of the book happened…

I’ve had this book hanging around the house for weeks and weeks now, and I’ve been really working at it. But quite a lot of the stuff in the book, I just couldn’t get through. Or, for a number of stories that I did get through, I found them either indecipherable (which doesn’t bother me, as in the case of “A Dead Singer”) and unenjoyable.

This brings us to the reason I’m not going story by story: I didn’t finish the book. I am reviewing it to talk about something, and to make it stop whispering at me and causing guilt, in the dark hours of the night.

I am willing to accept that it is possible I just don’t know enough about the wider body-of-work of Michael Moorcock to appreciate some of these stories (some of which are tied into larger universes, like his Jerry Cornelius stories, or his Elric of Melnibone material). And I thought about that for awhile, and decided that that wasn’t it either.

Mostly, what this collection feels like, to me, is not a Best of as the title declares…but a Miscellany. It feels like a collection of B-sides and Outtakes, if you get my meaning (and have bought music that wasn’t on a CD). Now is it actually? I suppose that it would take a widely-read Michael Moorcock fan to really decide. I can say that I don’t think this is the book to start with, if you want to get into him. And I wish it wasn’t the one I started with. I intend to look into some other books by him. He is clearly a stunning, powerful, amazing writer. It just isn’t showcased readily for the reader here. Or at least, this reader. I’m always willing to believe that it’s just me, after all.

But I wanted to talk briefly about the terms that get put on the front of books and what I think they should mean. If you’ll forgive the deviation. This seems like a good place for it.

There are three. There is “Best of…” and then there is “The Essential…” and then there is “A Miscellany” (usually called something else, because I don’t know if people would buy a book called Things Scribbled on Napkins and Forgotten in Drawers by Neil Gaiman…although as I type it, I realize that I would).

A Best Of collection should be the book equivalent of a greatest-hits CD by a band. Maybe it doesn’t contain the most experimental work, perhaps not the pieces that the author feels pushed the boundaries of the field…but it’ll contain the most well-known stories. The ones that got the most acclaim and interest. In terms of music, these are the songs that got onto the radio, or had the anthemic quality that got audiences moving…not necessarily the epic and beautiful and amazing 12-minute-operatic ballad that you had on one of your albums. You see? Basically, I think that a Best Of collection is the place for a new reader to start. It’s a book you hand to someone and say “Here, this’ll give you a good idea whether or not you’re going to like him.”

Then there’s an Essential collection, such as The Essential Ellison, or Ray Bradbury: 100 Stories. These are something different, and The Essential Ellison is the best example of it. Not all of these stories are the most popular, or well-known. Heck, not all of them are stories. They are a mixture from all across the board, and all across a career. They are showing you not only the depth and breadth of the writer, they are showing you the writer’s evolution, and his heart. It is, literally, essentially. “This is Harlan Ellison. And this is what you need to know about him and his work.” To keep with the music analogies, this is an artist Box Set. This is The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper. You see?

Finally, there is A Miscellany, and this is what the Michael Moorcock book feels like: b-sides and outtakes. Stuff that he wrote and liked, but wasn’t published, or popular, or well-known. Interesting exploratory bits, bumping up against a few well-known bits. A Miscellany is for the fans, then, who already have the other books. Who are looking for the odds and ends, the neat little bits, and who already have such a strong grasp of the author in all other areas that even if some of these bits are strange and tricky, they are enjoyable. There is Neil Gaiman’s Adventures in the Dream Trade for example, which collections articles and introductions and a chunk of blog. I adore it. I think it might fall a bit odd to someone who isn’t already a fan. Or else, something like Yours, Isaac, which is a collection of Isaac Asimov’s letters to and from fans and friends. I’ve read it many times. But would it be interesting, or resonate, if I didn’t already love Asimov? A Miscellany is, in the music analogy, the b-sides. And perhaps a bootleg tape. You get the idea.

I hope you’ll forgive the blither. And I hope that helps explain where this book falls, and why. And I hope it also tells you what you need to know, to go out and look into Michael Moorcock. Because you really should, you know. He has stories that are astonishing in their power and their writing, and you will be a better person for having read them. Some of them are in this volume. But not enough of them.

About Peter Damien (33 Articles)
Peter Damien is a busy writer who lives in Minnesota because he just really likes frigid temperatures and mosquitoes. He lives in the crawl-spaces between heaps of books and can be seen scurrying out at dusk to search for food and ALL the TEA. His wife and two boys haven't figured out how to get him out of the house, so they put up with him. He as astonishing hair.
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